Requiem for an old, neglected Empress

A banner light for the Yonge-Downtown BIA is framed wth sad irony as water is poured on the former Empress Hotel today.


Oh, your Highness, The Empress Hotel, I didn’t know you, not even your successor The Edison. (Most Torontonians lived elsewhere or were not yet born during your building’s heyday; now your Ryerson University neighbours only know you as one of your street-level enterprises The Salad King.) To die so dramatically, after having lived in such obscurity of late, is a shame.

You were Toronto’s Empress built in an era when many hotels were two-to-three storeys tall, the only reasonable height for fire ladders hypothetically leaned against the building.  But even in your last moments the beauty of those corner windows could easily be imagined.

“The long and storied history of 335 Yonge Street” does not suggest that our grandparents might have wanted to rent a room but it seemed to bear witness, at one time, to the way Yonge Street used to be. (I’d bet money that most patrons of the New Empress Grill were Toronto Telegram readers.)

Montréal, where I’m from, has a wealth of historic buildings dating back to its earliest days as Canada’s financial and commercial hub. Much of the city’s 370-odd year history has been preserved in entire neighbourhoods. While the major banks, and many other head offices, left beginning in the sixties and seventies (which would explain Toronto’s modern bank towers) the buildings remain and they, the commercial and financial and civic buildings of history, remain a beautiful presence and serve adaptable purposes.

With so much destruction of building inventory caused in the great fire of 1904 (and its predecessor in 1849) Toronto has a strange way of honouring its remaining architectural heritage. The default mode – think back to the building of the Eaton Centre, for example – seems to have been demolition (nowadays to make way for condominiums) or, in the case of an occasional showpiece such as the former 8-bedroom, Second Empire Style James Cooper mansion, known more recently as the Knights of Columbus Hall, on Sherbourne Street the historic building (and a facade will often do) may become a “podium” or “pedestal”. The Cooper home, before its K of C role began in 1910, was known as the Keeley Institute for Nervous Diseases, an organization that helped those with alcohol and substance abuse problems. Following the sale by the Knights of Columbus, Tridel painstakingly moved the entre mansion up the property (the largest residential structure relocation in Canadian history), to a spot close to the street, which would have been much too close to dusty horse-and-carriage traffic on unpaved roads for anyone who could build such a mansion. (It will certainly redefine “party room” for apartment dwellers, although there might be some ghosts with “nervous diseases” lurking about!)

Historic properties, such as The Empress was, would do well to keep the facades of their buildings from becoming cluttered with the gawdy, modern signs of several subdividing businesses which quickly mask evidence of an era when architecture was grand not just for its size but for its time in history.  At street level it was hard to imagine 335 Yonge having ever been a hotel.

Lilani Group, the property’s owner, sought a demolition permit from the city on July 2 after its engineers recommended  tearing down the remaining structure.

To their credit, city councillors stopped that application in its tracks by designating the building a heritage site.

“Demolition of that building is a serious thing to contemplate and so we want to make sure that the appropriate review has been done,” said Mary MacDonald, acting manager for Heritage Preservation Services at the time of council’s decision.

The property has been under a city-designated unsafe condition order since part of the building façade collapsed last April.  Apparently the owner has been incommunicado with the City.

Those preservationists, who stand up when market forces want to tear things down, have had far too little effective support from City Council so it’s been difficult to use the power of persuasion with property developers. It is too easy for developers to see dollar signs in an older property – not for what is, but what it could be with three-storey underground garages anchoring yet another condominium tower.

It is discouraging to observe that Toronto continues to treat heritage properties – Casa Loma, Old City Hall, Fort York, etc. – as notable exceptions, as if none other exist, to what is otherwise a modern city best marketed as such. Therefore, rather than cultivating any hope of having truly historic buildings and neighbourhoods preserved, these fall prey to suspicious fires in the night . 

“The power, gas, hydro, water — everything was shut down,” local Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam told reporters while surveying the scene near Yonge and Gould.  An act of good faith would be to see what went wrong between the time of the Empress wall collapse last year and the fire this morning. I think the City is up to that task.